CINCINNATI – Cincinnati opened conference play last season against Tulane on January 1, 2022, with a disappointing 68-60 loss at home that featured a 26-point lead in the first half of the game. It proved to be an unfortunate harbinger of a frustrating few months that saw the Bearcats run to a 7-11 regular season record in the AAC.
After nearly a full year, UCLA opens conference play again against the Green Wave in Fifth Arena, this time on December 29, 2022. Same opponent, different result. The Bearcats won 88-77 against a talented Tulane team that brought back the bulk of their roster Cincinnati showcased the program’s offensive strides in year two under Wes Miller, shooting 51 percent from the field on 20 assists, with all five starters . Scoring by double digits.
“Any league win is a good win,” said Miller.
It felt like a sign of progress compared to the previous season, but Miller was quick to acknowledge the work that still lies ahead.
“We’ve got a lot of firepower there,[but]we have to be more consistent up front. We’re going through a strange drought,” Miller said. “Defensively, I want to be better. There are moments I’m proud of, and then it just wasn’t consistent enough.”
That lack of consistency is what plagued the Bearcats last season, and it reappeared to start 2023 as Cincinnati promptly marched and lost 70-61 to Temple on New Year’s Day. The same team that made more than half of its attempts against Tulane shot just 38 percent in Philadelphia and lost 46-28. Leading scorers David DiGulius and Landers Noli II started the game. Big man Viktor Lakhen, whose development has been vital to UCLA this season, made three errors in the first half as the Owls finished the first half on a 15-0 run.
Then Thursday night, the Bearcats’ pendulum of stability swung the other way with a 70-61 road win at Wichita State. Miller, perhaps feeling familiar boredom last season after losing Temple, made some notable adjustments to his rotation, chief among them the decision to bring Jeremiah Davenport off the bench for the first time in 53 games.
Davenport has become a major source of frustration for many UC fans as the senior forward’s production and efficiency have declined across the board. Entering Thursday’s trip to Wichita, Davenport’s goal average has dropped from 13.4 points last year to 9.4 this season, and his 3-point percentage has dropped from 36 percent to just 30 percent, albeit still averaging over six attempts per game . His minutes were cut back as a result, but his move to the bench was a stark and obvious response to his struggles and one former Miller seemed reluctant to do.
Naturally, Davenport responded with his best game of the season, earning a team-high and season-high 22 points against the Shockers on 8-of-12 from the field and 6-of-9 from 3-point range. His defense is still a liability, but he got all 30 minutes he played against Wichita State and offered hope that this new role could lead to a sustainable turnaround going forward.
Davenport’s teammates followed suit, shooting 45 percent from outside the arc, holding Wichita to just 33 percent from the field and winning 43-32 on the glass for Cincinnati’s first true road win since February 9, 2022. Nolly shot just 5 for – 12 but managed a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. And Lakhen remained in trouble, scoring 14 points and nine rebounds. Udi Ujama, who started in place of Davenport, did not score but tallied six rebounds and three blocks in 22 minutes.
“Anytime you go out on the road and get a win, you enjoy it,” Miller said. “We played very well for 34-35 minutes, and I was really proud of the way we played after Temple a few days ago.”
It was only the Bearcats’ third game, as they improved to 11-5 (2-1 AAC), but the trip to Wichita was close to a must-win given that second seed Houston comes into fifth court on Sunday. Regardless, the bullish start is somewhat similar to what happened in 2021-22, when the Bearcats fell short of more than three straight league wins before dropping their last five to finish the regular season.
Metrically, Cincinnati is like last season’s defensive end, that’s without a real edge guard and John Newman III and Rob Phinisee – the best perimeter defenders – are out with injury. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are significantly better offensively, aided by the return of DeJulius, the addition of Nolley and the emergence of Lakhin. The team plays faster, shoots better and turns the ball less compared to last season, with a turnover ratio of 15.1 in the top 15 in the country.
So what does it give? One factor in the continuing discrepancy could be the change in the level of competition entering league play. During the non-conference slate, Cincinnati lost to three teams currently in the Top 25 according to KenPom, while the other ten opponents were ranked less than 180. Through their first three AAC showdowns, UC faced teams ranked between 95th and 130th on KenPom. It’s been hard to get an accurate measure of how good – and consistent – this team really is over the first 13 games. Or the first sixteen like that.
This is also a list with some big holes. There are more options on the offensive end, but the Bearcats just aren’t good or deep enough to weather an extended drought or a heavy Lakhin problem, especially on the road. Part of it had to do with injury, with Newman and Fennessy expected to be crucial pieces in the spin, but the biggest problem was the thin front court.
Lakhin has been formidable, and Oguama has become a valuable player for 20 minutes per game, even if he remains limited in offense. But that’s basically why the team can’t stand Lakhen being in trouble. The 7-foot freshman Sage Tolentino needs time to develop and, more importantly, Kalu Ezikpe withdraws from Miller’s course. Since the team’s win over NJIT on November 30, Ezikpe has gone 6-8 in just two games for nine minutes combined, with six healthy DNPs. Unless something drastic changes, rebounding, post-defense, and point-scoring will remain areas of potential exposure, especially when Lakhin isn’t on the floor.
However, none of this should indicate that a repeat of last season is inevitable or even likely, as evidenced by Miller’s timely adjustments on Thursday and his Wichita team’s response. This group may be battling some of the same inconsistencies as it did last season, but it’s also more cohesive and versatile on the offensive end. Lakhin, Oguama, and Mika Adams-Woods showed significant improvement. Freshmen Dan Skillings Jr. and Josh Reed continue to stabilize and provide important bench minutes. Finnessey and Newman should be back at some point. And despite a tight home tie against Houston on Sunday, the schedule then includes three winnable games (at home against East Carolina, at SMU and USF) before a potential win and statement opportunity at home against Memphis on Jan. 22.
Any talk of an NCAA Tournament path is premature at this point, and there are still plenty of kinks to work out. But if this Cincinnati squad can find the rhythm it eluded last season, there’s a level of potential this time around that just wasn’t there before.
“I think we have confidence that we can beat good teams,” Miller said after Tulane’s victory. “We’re far from a top 25 team in this building (Xavier) a couple of weeks ago. There have been moments in other games where you feel like you can compete with anyone. It’s just about consistency.”
(Top photo by Mika Adams-Woods: William Purnell / USA Today)